How did Florida football get so good at turning 3-star recruits into NFL Draft picks?

The Athletic recently did a study to find out which Power 5 programs did the best at turning recruits into draft picks. The angle that makes it notable is that they broke things down by 5-stars, 4-stars, and 3-stars. For example, Nick Saban’s Alabama puts a ton of players into the pros, but they also sign extremely highly rated classes every year. Are the Tide’s draft numbers more about signing good players or developing the guys they sign?

The study covers recruits signed between 2009-19 and the 2012-22 NFL Drafts. If anything below sounds like it’s missing someone, check that the player you’re thinking of fits both of those spans.

I won’t go over all of the piece, because it’s the result of a lot of work for paying subscribers. I will note, though, that Florida scored highly in the rate of converting both 5-stars and 3-stars into draft picks. UF wasn’t in the top or bottom ten for 4-stars, however.

The 5-stars are almost entirely from the Meyer and Muschamp eras. It’s no secret that UF hasn’t signed many since Coach Boom left, and both 5-star signees in the 2015 class weren’t drafted. The Gators didn’t sign one again until Gervon Dexter in 2020, and he’s outside the scope of the article.

That makes the 3-stars the interesting focus. Why is it that UF has been among the best at putting 3-star signees in the draft?

Not all 3-stars are equal

Authors David Ubben, Ari Wasserman, and Mitch Light do note that “3-star” is not terribly specific. In any given year, a player ranked No. 450 in the country and No. 950 in the county will both carry three stars next to their name. However, there is a yawning gap between the players when you look at the more precise player ratings.

The teams that put the highest percentages of their 3-star recruits in the NFL Draft are ones that tend to sign most of their 3-stars from the top end of the spectrum. Of course a dude who is just on the wrong side of the 4-star/3-star border is more likely to be drafted than one who’s just on the right side of the 3-star/2-star cutoff.

Is that Florida’s edge? Is it merely an effect of signing a lot of high 3-stars?

The Gators really are good at this

I’ll start by saying that my numbers won’t match The Athletic’s numbers. They didn’t make their full data public, for one thing, so I don’t have a great way to harmonize my counts with theirs. They also had to make some decisions regarding transfers that you really have to if you’re studying dozens of teams. I was only looking at one, so I could make different choices.

I looked at the same 2009-19 recruiting classes using the 247 Sports Composite, which is also what The Athletic used for rankings. It has some issues, but it’s good enough for now. I left out JUCO transfers, since they’re in separate national rankings than are high school recruits. I also left out specialists, since they basically never get higher than a 3-star rating regardless.

The Gators signed 103 overall 3-star high school prospects in the 11 recruiting classes covered. Of them, 16 were drafted out of UF. That comes out to a draft rate of 15.5%. It’s better than one-out-of-seven. You can find a lot of calculations of what share of 3-star recruits get drafted from over the years, and they usually come out between 5% and 6%. Florida is definitely above average here.

By now, you may or may not have thought about the fact that Florida had three different transitional classes in the span studied due to the high head coaching churn the program has had. Transitional classes are notoriously underwhelming due to the, well, transitional issues.

UF signed 28 total 3-stars in the 2011, 2015, and 2018 classes combined, and only one of them (Jabari Zuniga, ’15) was drafted. Set aside those classes, and the Gators had 15-of-75 drafted for an even 20% rate. That’s one-out-of-five. Not bad at all.

Who’s being drafted

It’s important to keep in mind that the ratings aren’t consistent across all seasons. The number of players rated by the recruiting services has gone up over time, and the number receiving higher star counts has also gone up. The 5-star club remains exclusive, but the 4-star club isn’t as small as it used to be.

To wit, 447 recruits got at least four stars in the 2023 class. Four of Florida’s 3-star draftees were rated better than No. 447 overall in their recruiting classes: Joey Ivie (2013, No. 371), Quincy Wilson (2014, No. 369), Shawn Davis (2017, No. 353), and Kadarius Toney (2017, No. 421). They all would’ve been 4-stars had 247 been as generous with that appellation in the past as it was this year.

The Athletic’s piece uses top 600 as an example cut off point in passing, so I’ll grab onto that for convenience’s sake. Nine of the sixteen draftees, or 56.3%, were in the top 600. In addition to the four mentioned above, they were: Josh Evans (2009, No. 494), Alex McCalister (2012, No. 519), Jarrad Davis (2013, No. 496), Taven Bryan (2014, No. 533), and La’Mical Perine (2016, No. 493). There really is something to players nearer to the 4-star border getting drafted more.

However, Florida’s volume isn’t from that alone. And, it’s specifically the Jim McElwain staff that padded out the figures.

None of Dan Mullen’s 3-star signees have yet to be drafted, though there’s still time for some of them. All of Will Muschamp’s 3-star draftees were in the top 600. Urban Meyer did have one long shot 3-star drafted out of his final two recruiting classes, 2009’s Jon Halapio (No. 972).

But the other six draftees, all of whom came outside the top 600, were McElwain era finds. One was Zuniga from 2015. The other five were from the 2016 class: Vosean Joseph (No. 643), Jachai Polite (No. 741), Jawaan Taylor (No. 941), Stone Forsythe (No. 976), and Kyle Trask (sub-No. 1000). Mac also signed James Houston (2017, No. 649), who was drafted out of Jackson State after four years at UF.

McElwain may get one more draftee, as 2017 signee Ventrell Miller (no. 549) could be a late round pick this year. Mac’s staff had a good eye for talent among 3-stars, though the development of all of these guys was split between the McElwain and Mullen staffs. Billy Napier even got one year of Miller, too.

Florida in general may also get one more draftee from this span, as 2019 signee Kingsley Eguakun (No. 680) might find his way into a late round with a strong finish to his career. I wouldn’t project it right now, but it could happen. I don’t expect any other 3-stars who are still in Gainesville from 2018 or 2019 to get a look from the pros.

The Mullen staff’s best 3-star finds, in terms of NFL Draft prospects, were all offensive linemen. The 2019 class has a maybe of a prospect in Eguakun, though it’d have two if Ethan White (no. 780) hadn’t left. The only 3-star from the 2020 class with any shot might be Gerald Mincey (No. 657), though he transferred to Tennessee last year. It’s still early for draft assessments for the ’21 class, but of them, the most promising is Austin Barber (No. 559).

Not all those guys were in the top 600, though only White was far away from being in it. None were from in or near the triple digits as Taylor, Forsythe, and Trask all were.

Eliminate the McElwain years from the span in The Athletic’s study, and the Gators had seven-of-62 draftees (11.3%) among 3-stars. All but one were in the top 600, and two of them were top 400.

In summary, UF’s recent excess success in turning 3-stars into draft picks comes from a combination of signing a good number of high 3-star players who are more likely than the average of their rating to get drafted and a brief aberration from the McElwain era.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2